Mark my words, it’s going to make us all so much fussier about the shows we turn out to see, this new normal. You really have to be motivated to see a show, to don a mask, to brave the tube, to socially distance your way along the pavement, and then to do the same around the exhibition itself.
I might not, in other circumstances, have turned out to see Artemisia at the National Gallery. A little Italian Baroque goes a long, long way with me. All those glistening snooker-ball eyes, the exhausting size of the canvasses, the ridiculous clothes (in this show, I defy anyone to look at Ahasuerus, in Esther before Ahasuerus, of about 1628-30, without collapsing with laughter), the hysterical lighting,
the migraine-inducing blues and reds, the neurotic intensity of it all. Baroque paintings always make me long to sit down with something pale and chalky from the Quattrocento. Nonetheless, turn out for it I did, motivated partly by the fact that I had not been to an exhibition since the ‘rona turned the world upside down; and partly by the fact that I had promised to accompany a girlfriend who, if she wishes to see a show, needs to be pushed round it in a chariot. Also, it was Artemisia. There has never been an Artemisia show in the UK before. Let that sink in for a minute. One of the most important, successful and influential artists of the 17th century, and there has never been a show devoted to them before. Major points, therefore to the National Gallery, for pushing ahead with making this one happen in what have to be the most challenging circumstances any curator has faced since World War II; and equally, thank you to their staff for being so accommodating of a wheelchair-user.
I still don’t like Artemisia’s paintings. But after this show, oh do I admire her. There are very few exhibitions where you enter with one idea of the artist in your head and go out with it completely transformed, but this is one such. This is #MeToo for the 17th-century.
What’s the pass-notes version of Artemisia’s life? That in 1611, when she was 17, she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter hired to help tutor her. He almost got away with it, what’s more, because every social system round them was designed to excuse him and shut her up. Had it not been for the fact that Tassi, like all liars, kept changing his story and his victim did not, there would have been no punishment for him at all. As you enter the show there is her first recorded version of Susannah and the Elders, done when she was just 16, like some awful prefiguring of the ordeal she would herself have to go through, but good Lord, if she could already produce a work as polished and intense as this, why was it thought she needed any further training from anyone? Did you not count as an artist unless you could point to a male hand somewhere in your training?
Susannah and the Elders, 1610. Oil on canvas, 170 × 121 cm. Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden. © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden
If so, over the next 40 years of an illustrious career, in canvas after canvas, Artemisia devoted herself to proving how wrong that notion was, and in taking her painterly and thoroughly Baroque revenge. Never mind if the works aren’t to your taste (like me). Yes, as a 17-year-old she was raped, yes she endured 17th century Italy’s version of justice for a rape victim, yes the experience did, so far as we can judge from 400 years off into the future, shape her for the rest of her life – but only in that she turned that experience into a weapon of attack of her own. What this show does is force you to stop looking at what you’re looking at as art, and start looking at it as an artist’s discovery of a unique and personal and hard-won vocabulary, one where in every work the language of oppression is turned on its head and forced into service against itself. Jael whacks that tent-peg through Sisera’s skull with as little emotion as if she were putting down a dog; Judith deprives Holofernes of his head as professionally as a cook opening the knuckle on a leg of lamb; she and her maidservant pause to take stock with the ghastly item forgotten in a basket, nestling against one woman’s hip. There’s a sort of awful wit here, too. Have you ever watched CSI? Want to know what they mean by ‘blood spatter’? Have a look at the fount of beaded droplets exiting Holofernes’s neck, like a necklace of garnets.
Susannah and the Elders, 1652. Oil on canvas, 200.3 × 225.6 cm. Polo Museale dell’Emilia Romagna, Collezioni della Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna © Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna
This is revenge that is reveled in, depicted in such detail it almost makes you queasy, but it’s also a victory over the fate as victim that might have been hers. By the time she depicts herself as Painting personified, she even occupies the sort of elevated viewpoint that in Old Master paintings traditionally belongs to the male gaze. Artemisia is equal to occupy even that, to literally look over and after herself. Seeing the exhibition in the company of a wheelchair-user made me more aware of this side of it than I might have been otherwise: forget the gore, the sadism, look at the determination. Artemisia went on to have a career where she could count Cosimo II de’Medici, Philip IV of Spain, and Charles I as patrons – who the hell remembers anything of Tassi? And she married, had children, and a passionate love affair with a Florentine grandee. The final Susannah in the show, which is choreographed very carefully to end where it began, is from Artemisia’s sixties, the last few years of her life, and shows her almost flipping off those pathetic male elders. Victim? I think not.
Artemisia, National Gallery, 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021
Above: Judith beheading Holofernes, about 1613-14. Oil on canvas, 199 × 162.5 cm, Gallerie degli Uffizi – Firenze. © Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi